United there for City's taking
If Keegan's men can find their touch in front of goal they have every chance of adding to the champions' misery
Out of the Champions League, virtually out of contention in the Premiership race and faced with having to beat Arsenal to stay in the FA Cup - surely things can't get any worse for Manchester United. Well, they might do tomorrow if local rivals City can take their chances in the latest instalment of this season's derby story.
United's derby record remains virtually unblemished after two meetings already this season - Old Trafford wins (3-1 and 4-2) taking their overall record since the Premiership started to 11 wins, three draws and just one defeat. They look certain to field a severely weakened side this time, however, and that should even up the game.
City have had plenty of chances in the previous two derby clashes and might get even more at home, especially if they play as well as they did in their last home match against Chelsea, so the match really boils down to whether they can improve their touch in front of goal. If they can (and it's quite a big if), they have a better chance than the odds suggest of repeating last season's 3-1 win in this fixture.
It could be argued that this is a good time to be with United - after all, they are playing the team lying fifth from bottom in the Premiership and are only on a poor run by their high standards. It is certainly easy to exaggerate the depth of United's problems - Porto's last-gasp winner in the Champions League was undeserved, especially after United had a perfectly good goal ruled out - but a record of two wins from their last seven games does not inspire great confidence.
Whatever the result, a high goals tally looks likely - nine of the 15 meetings since the Premiership started have produced three goals or more, and three out of four since attack-minded Kevin Keegan took charge of City almost three years ago.
The title-holders are slipping in Italy, too, with Juventus also out of the Champions League and lying six points off the pace set by AC Milan. The two teams clash in Turin tomorrow night - one of the highlights of the weekend's live action - and the game looks to be Juve's final opportunity to stay in serious contention. Like United, however, Juventus are ravaged by injury and Milan are an appealing price for the away win.
Form patterns are well established with two-thirds of the European league season gone, and it can pay to look for some of the less obvious trends. This weekend, for instance, throws up three strong home bets in the Premiership, even though the overwhelming superiority of the teams concerned - Birmingham, Fulham and Everton - might not be clear at first sight.
All three host relegation-threatened sides (Leicester, Leeds and Portsmouth respectively) but the case for the home teams goes much deeper than that - making even the odds-on quotes appear too big.
Take Birmingham, who have prospered in the Premiership mainly by performing well against bottom-half sides. Since they joined England's top division last season, their home record against such opponents is 12 wins, three draws and just one defeat. In other words, they have a long-term win strike-rate of 75 per cent against sides from the bottom half of the table. Add in their recent hot form (second only to Arsenal over the past eight games) and Leicester's off-field problems, and the case for Birmingham is compelling.
Fulham have an even better win strike-rate of 79 per cent in home matches against bottom-half sides over the same period - a ratio which was just as strong last season, when they finished 14th, as it has been during their much-improved showing this term. Since the start of last season, they have recorded 15 wins and two draws from 19 home meetings with bottom-half sides.
Everton have built up similar statistics under David Moyes. Since Moyes took charge almost exactly two years ago, Everton's home record against bottom-half sides reads 12 wins and six draws from 18 games (a win strike-rate of 67 per cent). Even this season, when they have sunk back into the bottom half themselves, they have won three and drawn two from five against fellow strugglers.
Starting tonight against Portsmouth, eight of Everton's last 11 league games are against current bottom-half sides (half of them at home), so there is every possibility that they will achieve mid-table respectability by the end of the season.
Taken overall, the home records of Birmingham, Fulham and Everton suggest the true odds for the win are around 1.3. A straight all-up is around the 4.8 mark and is worth considering.
Strong trends can also be found in the other European leagues. Recent form suggests Bologna have a sporting chance at Sampdoria, a fact reflected in the odds, but the home side should be much shorter based on overall form. Eighth-placed Sampdoria's only weakness has been against top-five sides (all seven league defeats have come against the elite - take out their matches against teams above them in the table and their home form reads six wins, one draw from seven, with three goals conceded).
Punters should be aware of negative pointers, too. In Spain, Real Betis are favoured for a home win against Osasuna despite the fact that their recent good run of form has been achieved mostly against struggling teams. Betis have collected 19 points out of a possible 30 in 2004, but 16 (out of 21) have come against bottom-half sides and they haven't beaten a top-half team in 12 attempts this season.
Osasuna are bound to make things difficult - their defence is joint-second overall in the Primera Liga and matched only by Valencia's in away games. A draw is a strong possibility (1-1 being a good correct-score option), as is a low goals tally, but Osasuna might just snatch victory (their win strike-rate away to teams outside the top six is nearly 40 per cent).
Villarreal's 1.8 quote for the visit of Albacete looks way too big, especially after their 2-0 home win over top Italian side Roma in the midweek UEFA Cup tie. Villarreal are erratic, but they should have no problem against Albacete, who are the lowest away scorers in the Primera Liga (eight goals in 13 games) and have taken just one point from seven away games against top-half sides.
A similarly big negative concerns Italian side Chievo, who travel to Inter. On paper Chievo have the best away record outside the top six and look dangerous, but closer analysis reveals that they have taken only three points from a possible 33 against top-half sides, all at home. On stats alone, Inter should be a shorter price, though confidence is reduced by their recent difficulties (just one win in 11 since the start of February).
Other contenders for this week's shortlist of bets are Chelsea, Parma, Roma, Freiburg and Hamburg, while the stats point strongly to low goals when Charlton host Middlesbrough (all nine Premiership meetings between the clubs have had two goals or fewer).
Best homes: Birmingham, Everton, Fulham, Sampdoria, Villarreal.
Best aways: Deportivo, Osasuna, AC Milan.
High goals: Tottenham v Newcastle, Manchester City v Manchester United, Mallorca v Deportivo.
Low goals: Charlton v Middlesbrough, Southampton v Liverpool, Real Betis v Osasuna.
Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$200 win Birmingham, Everton, Fulham, Villarreal.
$200 High goals Tottenham v Newcastle (HiLo).